Pleasant Hill pilot released from custody, can't board another plane

A federal and state judge have now allowed a former Alaska Airlines pilot from Pleasant Hill accused of trying to cut the engines of a Horizon Air flight to be released from custody, as long as he follows a set of rules. 

On Thursday, Multnomah County Judge Thomas Ryan said Joseph Emerson, 44, could leave county jail in Portland with a set of seven conditions, including a $50,000 bond, staying away from alcohol and psilocybin mushrooms and staying away from any operating airplanes. 

That followed a similar ruling from U.S. Magistrate Stacie F. Beckerman on Wednesday, where Emerson faces a federal charge of interference with flight crew members and attendants.

This week, a county grand jury indicted Emerson in state court on 84 endangerment charges, but is no longer charged with attempted murder. 

He had pleaded not guilty to both sets of charges, which stem from him allegedly trying to shut the plane's engines down while he was riding in the "jump seat" Oct. 22 from Everett, Wash., to San Francisco International Airport. 

His release from both federal and state custody means that Emerson will be driving from Oregon to the Bay Area, where he lives with his wife and two children, and await two parallel court cases against him for the same incident. 

"My kids are really happy," Emerson's wife, Sarah Stretch, told Fox12 in Portland outside federal court on Wednesday. "He's happy to be coming home." 

Emerson's defense team was happy he was released, and they were pleased that the state charges no longer included attempted murder.

"The attempted murder charges were never appropriate in this case because Captain Emerson never intended to hurt another person or put anyone at risk – he just wanted to return home to his wife and children," lawyers Ethan Levi, Noah Horst and Norah Van Dusen said in a statement. "Simply put: Captain Emerson thought he was in a dream."

After Emerson was accused of trying to cut the engines, the flight crew described Emerson briefly struggling with attendants before he left the cockpit, the FBI said in an affidavit. 

Flight attendants placed Emerson in wrist restraints and seated him in the rear of the aircraft, the affidavit said.

The plane was diverted to Portland, where it landed safely with more than 80 people on board.

Sarah Stretch talks to Fox 12 Oregon about her husband, pilot Joe Emerson. Dec. 6, 2023

According to charging documents, Emerson told Port of Portland police following his arrest that he had been struggling with depression, that a friend had recently died and that he had taken psychedelic mushrooms about 48 hours before he attempted to cut the engines. 

Federal law requires commercial pilots to have medical and mental evaluations every six months. However, fearing losing their jobs temporarily or permanently, many pilots choose to deny having any mental issues at all. 

"No one should have to think twice about their job before seeking help, yet here we are today because that's not currently the case in aviation," said National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy. 

He also said he had not slept in more than 40 hours, according to the document.

Speaking outside federal court on Wednesday, Stretch said that her husband is "doing well" now, calling him an "amazing man," who is funny, friendly, outgoing, sensitive, caring and kind.

And while her husband is suffering himself, she acknowledged that the flight in question was also very difficult for the passengers, pilots and flight crew, who must have been terrified.

"It's a hard situation for a lot of people, not just Joe," Stretch told Fox 12. "It's unfortunate that it happened. I'm just glad that he's doing better now."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.